It’s not uncommon for feedlots to receive very lightweight calves anywhere that weigh from 150-350 lbs at arrival in times of drought and other conditions limiting pasture,. Nels Lindberg, DVM, Production Animal Consultants, Great Bend, Kan., typically sees a lot of calves in the 300-lb. range. Most all of them, says Lindberg, are southeast and Pennsylvania sale-barn calves.

“There are very few yards that handle this light of an animal, and that is for very specific reasons,” Lindberg explains. “The yards I consult that receive this class of calf are very unique in nature, and family-owned. They have employees who are excellent animal caretakers, and very good at nurturing and doctoring sick calves. It can be easy to handle this class of calf, but if problems arise, they tend to be amplified.”

Lightweight challenges

Little calves coming into the feedlot have their own special set of challenges. “There are several things we are overcoming with these calves, such as maternal separation, transportation, dietary change, restraint, social reorganization and nutritional stress,” Lindberg says. “All of those things are stressors at varying degrees, and we must deal with them in varying manners and methods. We must acclimate those calves to us, horses, environmental conditions, nutritional and feeding methods.”

Lindberg says those strategies are dealt with via proper cattle handling, proper pen riding and management, as well as bunk and ration management.

Lindberg says there is typically zero knowledge of prior vaccination history on these calves, so he develops protocols as if they have not been immunized. His protocols are fairly typical, and can change depending on the time of year. “We may change mass treatment drugs, sometimes use Mycoplasma vaccine, as well as utilize bovine viral diarrhea persistent-infection testing strategies,” he says. “These calves tend to have typical disease pattern trends over the course of the year, but can be more pronounced in the extreme environmental conditions, so those are the times when we tend to be more aggressive on processing.”

Disease in lightweight calves

Respiratory disease, caused by the various agents from viral to bacterial to Mycoplasma, is the No. 1 disease issue in ultra-lightweight calves. Lindberg notes that another issue is that typically about 1% of the calves received are chronically ill upon entry, and never do perform or respond to treatment. “We work very hard to identify those animals, and rail them as necessary,” he says.

The time frame of illness in these calves depends on how fresh the calves are and that depends on the order buyer. “We have some calves that I know that have been in an order buyer’s lot for four to seven days, and those calves are already breaking on entry.” Lindberg says. “Some that are fairly fresh may break anywhere from five to 30 days on feed.”

Though these young calves may not have been on much concrete prior to their arrival to the feedlot which his always a concern, Lindberg doesn’t see a lot of toe abscess problems, but he believes that’s due more to their light weight. 

The feedlots where Lindberg consults tend to range anywhere from 0.5-5 % mortality, and 5-80% morbidity on a lot close-out basis. “Currently, the major databases out there have very limited numbers on this weight of calf,” he explains. “They may have it for Holsteins, but a 3-weight Holstein is like a yearling calf in the feedyard. The data that is out there is typically reflective of 500 lbs. and less, and mortality is typically in the 4-6 % range. Extreme weather conditions tend to make for higher peaks or trends for morbidity/mortality.  We do tend to struggle significantly with calves that come in weighing less than 200 lbs.” 

Feed lightweights right

Nutritionally, young, lightweight calves are very immature, and hay is a very important part of the ration to help restart or even begin rumination. Lindberg says they typically are not hard to get to the bunk, but will go through some traveling in the pen prior to settling down and approaching the bunk and finding the waterer. It is also very important to make sure the calves can reach over the bunk and waterer, especially in yards not accustomed to feeding this weight of calf. “From there, in the bulk of the yards I consult where these calves are, they are then moved to a corn-silage based ration, and tend to come up on feed fairly quickly if health associated challenges can be avoided. If those challenges are not avoided, then consumption will be a problem, as with any calf.”